Player Spotlight: Antonio Gates
by Court E. Mann - Associate Editor, Fanball.com
Thursday, September 2, 2004
Everywhere you turn, you see the name Antonio Gates. Every preseason magazine, every cheat sheet, every Sleepers article—there he is, smack dab in the heart of every top 10 ranking of fantasy tight ends. And yet, you've never even heard of the guy.
We don't exactly blame you for not being familiar with the second-year Chargers tight end. After all, he went undrafted out of Kent State, where he played zero football games in his collegiate career. That's right, before signing with the Chargers as a rookie free agent, Gates had not donned the pads since high school.
Instead, he spent four years on the hardwood, leading the Golden Flashes to back-to-back conference championships, making a run to the NCAA's Elite Eight in 2002, and becoming the sixth leading scorer in Kent State history.
Further obscuring Gates from the legions of fantasy football players was the fact that he caught only three passes while seeing very little of the field in the first nine weeks of his rookie season. And of course, there is the fact that he plays in San Diego, otherwise known as fantasy football's purgatory.
And then something miraculous happened. An athletic, reliable, productive Chargers tight end emerged to provide fantasy owners with a midseason option. Over the last eight games of the season, all of which he started, Gates hauled in 21 passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns. For the sake of comparison, Todd Heap—the best fantasy tight end not named Tony Gonzalez—caught 29 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown in his final eight games.
So what now? What do we make of this unknown? Is he a star in the making? Is he the next coming of Gonzo—a two-sport star with the athletic ability to exploit mismatches all over the field? Or is he a flash in the pan?
In the case of the fantasy tight end, the pan doesn't often get illuminated, and it clearly doesn't take much for us to latch onto the next big thing at the position. While installing Gates as our top sleeper at the tight end position after his solid finish, we waited patiently for offseason reports to confirm that we indeed had ourselves a player.
Sure enough, ravishing reports of Gates' strong offseason, his impressive work ethic, and his ride along a steep learning curve came pouring in. It's not only Gates himself that has us excited about his potential, it's his environment in San Diego as well.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Chargers' offense is indeed likely to help Gates become a weekly fantasy starter. Just as an otherwise mediocre player can thrive in a fantasy-friendly offense, a relative unknown can suck up the significant scraps of a fantasy wasteland.
The Chargers are a mess at quarterback, you exclaim? They have no offensive line, you cry? That's precisely the climate in which Gates can emerge. Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson caught 100 passes last season, more than all but three NFL players, all of them wide receivers. Why do you think that is? Perhaps because the Chargers' woeful line didn't provide enough pass protection for their quarterback to find anyone downfield. Perhaps because San Diego's starting signal caller had an arm better suited to Orange County Intramural slow-pitch softball. Perhaps because the Bolts' receiving corps got as much separation as Nick and Jessica on their wedding anniversary.
The Chargers offense was all about the safety valve last season, and this year promises to be no better. They lost eight of their top 11 lineman from a year ago, and their only returning starter is holding out and will be suspended for three games upon his return. Their starting quarterback will either be a rookie who missed all of training camp or a short-armed veteran who they tried to run out of town. And finally, their set of wide receivers is some combination of injured, inexperienced, and just plain bad.
That leaves Tomlinson and Gates as the team's primary options, and we have a feeling opposing defenses just might focus their attention on L.T. after he rolled up a league-leading 2,370 total yards last season. So while the Chargers aren't exactly a squad you want to hitch your fantasy wagon to, few tight ends stand to be as integral a part of the game plan as Gates on a weekly basis.
When you add his athletic ability into that mix, you may find yourself in a very comfortable position on draft day: Grabbing sleeper running backs and wide receivers while everyone else is worrying about their starting tight end.
In reality, are there any sure things at the tight end position this year? Gonzalez—as close as you can get to a sure thing in fantasy football—has admitted that pain resulting from a stress fracture in his foot will last all season and that he will need surgery when the year is over. Um, the year hasn't even started yet. Heap's touchdown total was cut in half in Baltimore's anemic passing game last year; Jeremy Shockey continues to attract injury; Kellen Winslow is just a rookie; and Alge Crumpler is a tweaked hammy (and we don't mean his) away from last year's Falcons' debacle.
The uncertainty at the weakest position in the game makes Gates an even more attractive proposition. Let your opponents overpay for Gonzo and the others, stock your roster with backs and wideouts, and steal Gates late. If all he does is duplicate his second half as a clueless, former-hoopster rookie, he'll put 42 catches, 700 yards, and four scores—and you'll have yourself a top-five tight end.
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I asked yesterday about Gates and was wondering if he would live up to expectations. This article, just published today, has really helped re-inflate my hopes for this guy. Thought some of you may need this little "boost" too.